Theresa May's Brexit plans questioned by EU chief Barnier

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator has questioned whether the Prime Minister Theresa May's proposals for customs arrangements are workable, in his first public response to last week's white paper.

Theresa May. Picture: Ian Georgeson
Theresa May. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Speaking after briefing ministers from the 27 remaining EU states in Brussels yesterday, Michel Barnier said the white paper has opened the way for “constructive discussions” on the post-Brexit relationship between the EU and the UK.

He indicated the EU was ready to amend its “backstop” proposals for the Irish border, which have become the biggest stumbling block in talks.

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He said there were elements of the plan agreed by the Cabinet earlier this month at Chequers which the European Commission did not understand, and said further discussions would be needed over the coming weeks to establish how much “common ground” exists between London and Brussels.

Mrs May’s proposal for a “facilitated customs arrangement” opened up the risk of major fraud, additional bureaucracy and damage to EU businesses, he said.

Tory arch-Eurosceptic Jacob Rees-Mogg said Mr Barnier’s “aggressive” comments “show why we are right to be leaving the mafia-like European Union”.

Mr Barnier was speaking shortly after Mrs May issued a challenge to Brussels to “evolve” its negotiating position in response to the publication of her Brexit blueprint.

In her first major Brexit speech since the wave of ministerial resignations which followed her Chequers deal, the Prime Minister described the proposals as “a significant development of our position … a coherent package”.

And she said: “It is now for the EU to respond – not simply to fall back on to previous positions which have already been proven unworkable, but to evolve their position in kind.

“And, on that basis, I look forward to resuming constructive discussions.”

Speaking in Belfast, Mrs May also took aim at critics from the hard Brexit wing of the Conservative Party, accusing them of being ready to “betray” the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic.

She took on the argument of prominent Eurosceptics including Jacob Rees-Mogg, who say the UK should simply declare it will impose no checks on its side of the Irish border and leave it to Brussels to decide whether to require the Republic to erect barriers on the other. Mrs May restated her implacable opposition to the EU backstop, which she said would involve the creation of a customs border within the UK, which was “something I will never accept”.